People with depression have a new opportunity for understanding their condition and getting helpful treatments with the technological breakthrough of brain scans.

As experts look for new ways to better understand, diagnose and treat depression, they are increasingly turning to brain scans for guidance. Depression brain scans, including PET scans and MRIs for depression, can provide images of the brain of someone with depression or another mental health disorder. 

By comparing depression brain scans to the scans of people without depression, researchers can look for similarities and differences in an effort to gather more information. With new data, experts hope to design better medications and therapeutic interventions.

What Does the Depressed Brain Look Like?

In most cases, a static brain scan of a depressed person looks the same as the brain scan of someone without depression. If visible differences do exist, they are usually seen in the frontal cortex or hippocampus. On rare occasions, someone could have a structural issue that results in depression, like a tumor or brain cyst. In these situations, a tumor may push on other structures in the brain to disrupt normal functioning.

Depressed Brain vs. Normal Brain Scan

Neuroimaging continues to become more advanced as time progresses. At first, researchers only had access to static images from X-rays, CT scans or MRIs to compare one brain to another. Now, experts can obtain data from PET scans, SPECT scans and functional MRI scans. These tests not only show the structure of the brain, but can also reveal how the brain functions in real-time.

Researchers find that significant differences exist between a depressed brain and a neurotypical brain through functional brain scans. Rather than only focusing on the two regions that appear differently with static images, these functional images show additional variations in the:

  • Prefrontal cortex
  • Anterior cingulate gyrus
  • Amygdala
  • Hippocampus
  • Striatum
  • Thalamus

Scans have demonstrated that the functioning in the above areas is different in people with depression when compared to people without depression. Sometimes, the regions show overactivity, while they are underactive in other samples. These segments of the brain work in harmony, so if one area is not performing well, depression may present.

Brain Imaging Identifies Different Types of Depression

People may believe all cases of depression are the same, and that each person with depression has all the same symptoms and will respond similarly to all available treatments. 

In reality, depression varies by symptoms displayed and symptom intensity. Treatment must be tailored to the type of depression for the best results. 

Different types of depression may include:

  • Depression with anxiety distress
  • Depression with psychotic features
  • Depression with seasonal pattern
  • Depression with melancholic features

According to Helen Mayberg, professor of psychiatry, neurology and radiology at Emory University School of Medicine, 

“All depressions are not equal and, like different types of cancer, different types of depression will require specific treatments. Using these scans, we may be able to match a patient to the treatment that is most likely to help them, while avoiding treatments unlikely to provide benefit.” 

To some extent, brain imaging can identify different types of depression according to the part of the brain affected. With the information compiled by numerous brain scans, researchers can find common themes in brain structure, brain function and mental health symptoms among people with depression.

The Future of Brain Scans For Depression Treatment

Brain scans that show what type of depression a person has can also help inform the best style of treatment. Brain scans can separate clients who will likely respond well to medications from those who will respond better to therapy. 

In some cases, brain scans can even pinpoint what kinds of medications will be most beneficial to a person’s depression. People with frontal cortex issues tend to do well with a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor, while those with dysfunction in other regions of the brain may respond to a medication that interacts with another brain chemical.

With brain scans, the future of depression treatment looks brighter. Unfortunately, these diagnostic tools remain very expensive, so the average person seeking help will probably not be able to undergo a brain scan for depression treatment.

If you know someone who has been using alcohol and other drugs as a way of coping with depression, they may need professional addiction treatment from a reputable facility like The Recovery Village. Our center provides evidence-based care for co-occurring addiction and depression. Reach out to a representative today for more information.

Megan Hull
Editor – Megan Hull
Megan Hull is a content specialist who edits, writes and ideates content to help people find recovery. Read more
Eric Patterson
Medically Reviewed By – Eric Patterson, LPC
Eric Patterson is a licensed professional counselor in the Pittsburgh area who is dedicated to helping children, adults, and families meet their treatment goals. Read more

Dunlop, Boadie W.; Mayberg, Helen S. “Neuroimaging Advances for Depression.” Cerebrum, November 2017. Accessed August 25, 2019.

Henderson, Theodore. “What Neuroimaging Can Teach Us About Depression.” Psychiatry Advisor, July 1, 2016. Accessed August 25, 2019.

Emory Health Sciences. “Brain scans may help clinicians choose t[…]tment for depression.” ScienceDaily, March 24, 2017. Accessed September 4, 2019.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.